Op-Ed: Will Benedetto stand up for students with disabilities? 

School classroom with blackboard
School classroom with blackboard
Photo courtesy Getty Images

As parents of public school students and constituents of Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, we’re urging him to stop blocking Assembly Bill A9287 that is before the Standing Committee on Education that he chairs. This bill needs to pass so we can undo an illegal backroom deal that took place in between mayoral administrations that violates a federal law protecting more than 250,000 students with disabilities in our city. 

On Dec. 1, 2021, the city Department of Education, former Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Education Department entered into an illegal back-room deal effectively transferring all impartial hearings for children with disabilities in NYC to OATH, a city agency whose leadership serves at the pleasure of the mayor. This deal violates federal law 20 U.S.C. which requires impartial hearings for students with disabilities to be conducted by the school district and that the person deciding the case can not be an employee of the school district. State law requires each school district to assign an independent impartial hearing officer from a list of independent hearing officers who have been certified by the state Education Department.

What this illegal action did was move the process to hearing officers hired by OATH who are not independent of the city or school district and managed by supervisors employed by the city.

Soon after, lawsuits were filed in federal and state courts challenging the legality of the memorandum. Bill de Blasio then issued Executive Order 91, unilaterally changing NYC’s laws, just four days prior to leaving office. In response to the concerns of parents and advocates, legislation has been proposed in the Assembly. Bill A9287 (S8620 in the Senate) is now before the Education Committee. If passed, it will protect children with disabilities and their families from NYC’s attempted power grab to control impartial hearing officers. The bill very simply states that impartial hearing officers must be totally impartial and not be employees of NYC or city-controlled agencies.

The proposed legislation has numerous cosponsors and significant support including multiple members of the Education Committee, as well as the chairs of Ways and Means, Persons with Disabilities and Children and Families. However, Bennedetto, who chairs the Education Committee, is ignoring pleas from fellow assemblymembers to put the bill on the agenda for a vote. With little time left in the legislative session and despite considerable support for the bill in both houses, Benedetto believes he can simply obstruct the bill by never putting it on the schedule and running out the clock to the end of the session.

Bennedetto is ignoring calls from parents and parent advocates. Anyone who has contacted his office has been rudely dismissed. To date he has refused to meet with anyone who supports the bill. He claims the reason for the move to OATH is the backlog of hearings that began in the months prior to the pandemic. The irony is that under the old impartial hearing system, that backlog has decreased by 85% this year and is on track to disappear by the summer. If anything, the move to OATH will result in greater delays as they lack the capacity to handle the increasing volume of hearings filed in New York City. 

We categorically reject the idea that city employees, supervised by an agency that reports to the mayor, will be neutral in settling disputes that charge another city agency. It’s Benedetto’s duty to ensure that our state protects our federally protected rights to impartial hearings for our students with disabilities in our city. By ignoring his colleagues and single-handedly blocking this bill from a vote in the Education Committee, Michael Bennedetto is abusing his position as chair of education and is failing to represent his constituents.

The Citywide Council on Special Education is an advisory body concerned with the education of students with disabilities.

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